As 2020 draws to a close, white’s relevancy continues to be a sticking point for Magic players in most formats. Last year, I put together an evaluation of the year’s cards over at Hipsters of the Coast. The conclusion last year? Though white did get some better cards, the rising tide was still threatening to sink white’s ship; for every strong white card, the other colors were still leagues ahead. Is anything different this year? Have we closed the gap? Is white good in Commander?
A note before we start: the quantity of cards worth talking about this year is much greater than last year. As such, it’ll be tough to include every single one. In order to give enough space to evaluate the cards and the topic properly, we’re breaking this down into two parts, with the second part to follow later this week.
Strap in — we’re about to head back to Theros to begin our look at what white got right.
Theros Beyond Death
Alseid is a great way to start things off. We see a relevant creature type, a relevant keyword, and a strong ability on a cheap body. What I like about this card is how flexible it can be in the right Limited deck — offering both much-needed constellation triggers and a way to save your investments. The fact that this can protect both your commander and your Smothering Tithe in EDH is also pretty solid, and giving white more flexibility to be reactive is always a good thing.
Speaking of constellation triggers, Archon of Sun’s Grace is an impressive four-drop. While it didn’t quite see the perfect Standard to truly shine, I don’t think that’s reflective of the power of this card. Upping the power of token producers in white is great, and even alone, this four-drop can provide a clock; swapping power and toughness with Gisela, the Broken Blade means it’s a little harder to put down.
Though many will remember THB limited as being ruled by black-based decks, the overdrafting of black meant that white — and Azorius in particular — was one of the better archetypes to be in. Commanding Presence was a house of a card, made stronger by access to Heliod’s Pilgrim and Karametra’s Blessing. It’s a little pushed, sure, but only because of the framework around it — I think this is a great example of what it takes to make white cards good in some draft formats, and how taking away some synergies can drastically alter the power of a card.
Elspeth Conquers Death (or ECD, as it’s colloquially known) is a fantastic Magic card. The three modes are all relevant, the artwork is superb, and the flavor is spot on. More than that, it’s a strong Limited- and Standard-playable card, and it’s been really great for me in EDH, too.
I think it’s also a great point to discuss card balancing, as I feel like this one got it more or less right. Though the second mode feels kind of awkward — it could have been any number of things, including gaining life (which I’m glad it doesn’t) — it still feels fine. It’s more than can be said for some of the other white cards in the set, which honestly felt a little too “safe.”
Though these are great experiments in design, and experiments I personally think are worth conducting, I think they fell a little too short to be truly great cards. Even The Birth of Meletis felt a little feeble, and I don’t necessarily think that makes it unplayable — the ability to blink it with Yorion, Sky Nomad has meant it’s seen play in many builds, like Esper Control.
There’s just a feeling of fear of overtreading with these designs, and I totally get it — if green is beyond broken, then there must be some consideration for not breaking other colors. Balancing that need to play it safe with making white competitive, though, might well be the crux of white’s issues.
White’s ability to sweep the board of artifacts and enchantments is one of its better strengths in Commander, but balancing that ability with losing your own permanents can sometimes be difficult. Among other things, it requires masterful sequencing and everything to go right. Enter Heliod’s Intervention: a flexible way to snipe out the most threatening permanents at instant speed, with a relevant second mode that acts like a fog most of the time.
Our final card from Theros is Heliod himself. White’s lacked the breadth of combo finish options that other colors have access to, and Heliod shores up this weakness by offering an easy to pull off one-two punch with Walking Ballista. What makes Heliod so good, though, is the cheap cost, strong body, and how relevant his +1/+1 counters are outside of combo. Rewarding lifegain is key to making it viable, and Heliod is a strong push in the right direction.
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
Kicking things off on Ikoria, Drannith Magistrate would like to say “no” to commanders everywhere. It’s hard to really appreciate good hatebears in white this year, what with Commander Legends giving Hullbreacher and Opposition Agent to other colors, but Drannith Magistrate is a proud member of the unfun brigade.
I like this card a lot, especially in higher-powered Commander, which I feel like it was designed for; I haven’t really seen a Standard environment yet where this is a snap include, despite it turning off adventure cards.
Luminous Broodmoth is a great example of a part of white’s color pie that is criminally underused: recursion. While it does suffer from costing four mana — a slot that’s pretty crowded, as things go — it deserves to be there, as this is definitely a four-mana play that can take over games.
As far as the rest of Ikoria, the one card I’d like to touch on is Flourishing Fox, a card I’m not sure was right. It’s a very strong card in Limited, is never bad, and can do a lot of work in Constructed, too. While it fits in with the power of Standard, I’m not convinced they got this card right. It’s arguably on the other side of the “safe” line we talked about earlier.
Call the Coppercoats is a card white tokens builds have been crying out for, and I love the design. It can get more powerful based on your opponents, and takes white’s infelicitous identity as a “catch-up” color — the tendency for white cards to only ever bring you up to parity if you’re behind, but never break parity — and tweaks it to the right power level. While I’m vehemently against being a “catch-up” color as being a worthy part of color pie design when it comes to Commander, there are worse ways to do it. And boy, did Ikoria manage to do just that.
We’re back around to that safety line again, and the Spring set wracked up another set of casualties, most notably Swallow Whole, Cartographer’s Hawk, and Verge Rangers. Powering up Swallow Whole is dubious, sure — making it any easier to invalidate mutate stacks in Ikoria Limited would have pushed the card up to rare, perhaps — but I still think the card kinda missed. It’s ever so close to being playable, but to replace the sorcery-speed options of Winds of Abandon and Declaration in Stone, it needs to be a little less restrictive, or a little more powerful. Removing the restriction of the target creature needing to be tapped might have pushed this to rare, but it’s a cost I believe would have been worth it in order for it to see play in other formats.
Cartographer’s Hawk and Verge Rangers likewise had too many restrictions. Breaking parity when it comes to ramping is still the preferred — and achievable — strategy in white, with cards like Burnished Hart and Sword of the Animist. This ramp strategy’s very existence already makes these cards fairly obsolete, and I can’t think of reasons to not run white’s best-in-slot ramp cards, which is the only time these cards would end up playable. Verge Rangers fits in Elsha of the Infinite, I guess.
Dismantling Wave is a great tempo card, and one I think is emblematic of the shift in the EDH format from powerful plays to tempo plays. Being able to remove three permanents and play a second spell is great in the developing stages of the game, and having an uncounterable wrath that draws a card late game is gravy. I talk more about how I feel white’s position in the format has evolved here.
Of the free spell cycle, white was thankfully not at the bottom this time around. Flawless Maneuver helps feed into white’s need to tap out and play creatures, but also hold up interaction in order to be able to support and keep safe those very same creatures. In decks that revolve around their commander, this card is particularly strong. I can’t say much more than that.
Griffin Aerie is another payoff for lifegain, and another I’m happy to see. What white needs in Commander especially is redundancy, and by that merit, options. Rather than having to run best-in-slot cards to keep up, white needs to be able to pick the options that best fit its strategy. This will lead to stronger synergies and more flavorful decks, which is a win-win.
As a Limited build-around, it’s not a terrible card, but three life is a lot more than one or two, and coupled with the speed of the format, the card didn’t quite do enough.
Oh, Mangara. What a phenomenal step forward for white. If any card deserves to be the milestone card for white this year, I’d say it was Mangara. Mangara is so great that he’s become a game changer in Commander. When he hits the table, if he isn’t removed, he slows down the pace of the game considerably. People just don’t want to give white the cards, and even if the game plays out in this way, white still benefits.
I could go on, but I feel like Mangara, the Diplomat is emblematic of our hopes for fixing white in EDH, and I see it as an absolute win.
Seasoned Hallowblade is a pretty exciting two-drop, and one I think occupies the need for evasive and hard-to-kill creatures that make white aggro decks playable. Ever since Adanto Vanguard rocked up on the scene, I think this card design is something that should be almost always available for Limited and Standard — the quality of the card that fits this slot dictates how viable aggro is. Also, have you ever given this guy Maul of the Skyclaves? It slaps.
Rick, Steadfast Leader
Rick is a fantastic anthem, and one that white has been looking for for quite some time. Rolling out this card onto a board full of tokens can help you push damage through with ease, and being able to drop it in from a Winota, Joiner of Forces trigger feels great. If you didn’t catch WeeklyMTG this week, then check out the announcement for which iconic character we’ll see Rick reprinted as here.
Meet Me Halfway
Well, we’re halfway through the year, and there’s still a plethora of cards to get through. Compared to last year’s twenty-four cards, I’m projecting we’ll surpass thirty by the time we get done talking about Commander Legends. As of where things stand before Zendikar Rising, it’s clear that white has received some serious power boosts, but beneath those choice hits lies an undercurrent of asceticism.
The reverence for keeping white chained to its mechanical weaknesses conveys a sense of trepidation — particularly in regards to ensuring another “green” doesn’t happen — but ultimately feels miserly when you consider the gulf of power between white and the other colors. While Rambunctious Mutt is cute, getting the Reclamation Sage effect on a card in white this late and seeing it on a five-drop is completely underwhelming.
Look out for Part 2 later this week, where I’ll cover Zendikar Rising, Commander Legends, and the other odds and ends, before discussing my overall thoughts and takeaways from the year in design. As ever, let me know your thoughts on Twitter to continue the discussion.
Kristen is Card Kingdom’s Head Writer, and member of the Commander Advisory Group. Formerly a competitive Pokémon TCG grinder, she has been playing Magic since Shadows Over Innistrad, which in her opinion, was a great set to start with. When she’s not taking names with Equipment and Aggro strategies in Commander, she loves to play any form of Limited.